Is the Social Media News Release necessary?

For much of the last year or so, the blogvines (at least, in those corners of the great big blogjungle where the flacks hang out) have been rattling with the idea that we need a new kind of news release.

The concept of a "Social Media News Release" (SMNR) was kicked off by Todd Defren about 18 months ago, to a mixture of praise and scepticism in the PR and broader media communities. Prompted by the announcement from Marketwire of their "Social Media 2.0" product, I've been doing a lot more reading and thinking about this in the past couple of weeks, and cooking up a couple of posts to try to do my thinking out loud in the hope of arriving at some conclusions. In this post, I'm going to wander through some of my overall thoughts on the SMNR concept. I have a follow-up piece in the works in which I'll try to articulate my thoughts about the latest initiative from Marketwire.

Fair warning: the word "wander" above was not accidental. This is a long post, with a relatively narrow focus.

If you want a cogent, reasoned, and much better explanation and discussion of Social Media News Releases, I can recommend this post from Brian Solis, which includes the only point you really need to understand:

"Social Media Releases can complement your outbound communications strategy based on what the people you're trying to reach want to see and how. They do not replace Traditional Releases."
If, however, you're willing to amble along beside me as thoughts of SMNRs tumble through my head, read on. Also, every good amble needs a preamble. So a little disclosure, please:

  • My employer, Thornley Fallis, is agency of record for CNW Group – an account which I personally lead;
  • The topic of this blog post was, as I've just said, inspired by the recent product announcement from Marketwire, a competitor to CNW Group;
  • This post isn't specifically critical of Marketwire's offering, but the next one might be interpreted that way;
  • I'm naturally feeling a little conflicted and squirmy about this whole thing, but I'm going to do my best to keep my biases and client affiliations out of it. I guess you'll have to be the judge of how well I manage that.

Of course, I know that my best efforts at objectivity here will still be taken as entirely subjective. That's fair and right; I can't claim for a moment to be an unbiased witness. But I would submit that my bias comes from pre-existing personal predilections, and not from client association. Does that make sense?

Ambling on ...

I've been sitting squarely in the "undecided" camp ever since the first SMNR initiative was announced. I instinctively want to welcome the notion of "News Release 2.0" (or at least celebrate the imminent demise of v1.0), but a number of things about the approaches taken to date by my esteemed and learned colleagues in the troposphere just aren't sitting right with me. That's another one of those areas of vague disquiet, which I'm having some difficulty explaining.

Granted, the entire process by which news is currently disseminated is widely acknowledged as broken. It needs something doing to it.

The basic method is over a hundred years old, quite literally. The first news release was dreamt up and issued by the legendary (in PR circles) Ivy Lebetter Lee in 1906. It was a smart thing to do back then, but I'm not convinced that these attempts to resuscitate the format and make it relevant for the Internet age are entirely the right thing to do.

In summary, though, it's not the format or even, necessarily, the method that's broken. As Brian Solis said, in a comment at my friend Stowe Boyd's blog: "It's the substance and honesty that press releases lack. The rest is technology."

Or, even better, as my blog-sister Jeneane has said:

"The traditional press release serves a purpose and always will. For public companies it is more an IR tool than anything else. Public companies are required to release information--and whether they do it through more human sounding language, through some PDF or HTML file with horizontal rules and links to podcasts, OR the usual way, they're not bothering anyone... The call for a social media press release is a straw man. It is easier to fix formatting and links in an OldPR tool than it is to figure out how to bring an old-world discipline into new territory."
Again: the problem most often isn't the format, it's the content. A lot of the news releases that hit the wires and land in journalists' inboxes with a resounding thud every day are just pathetically badly written. At this point, no doubt, someone is going to go hunting through the many thousands of news releases out there that bear my name at the bottom, and hold them up to the light for all to ridicule. In truth, I know I am not without sin, but then I'm not the first PR guy to cast a stone here.

If we follow Todd Defren's inspiration for the SMNR idea back to the source, the root inspiration for the creation of an SMNR is the belief that the whole idea of news releases, per se, is basically hosed.

More than that: certain aspects of the way wire distribution services work are hosed – and the smarter ones know this, btw. OK, so "hosed" is more than a little hyperbolic – but they're certainly challenged to remain relevant, viable, and profitable now that anyone with an Internet connection can get access to news and information from anywhere just about any time. It's a disintermediated, weird wide world. All kinds of businesses have been, or are being, disrupted. That's kind of the whole point.

What's happening is that the entire canon in which we have codified the format, methodology, infrastructure, and assumed network effects of this age-old distribution regimen is becoming increasingly redundant. Hung by the web, drawn by the Cluetrain, quartered by the blogosphere. The extreme view would be to suggest that news releases were, in many ways, sidelined the minute Tim B-L lit up the Web; we just haven't fully realised it yet.

Again, that's a deliberately dramatic over-statement – as Jeneane says, there are still many, many good reasons for issuing a traditional news release (or even a Social Media News Release, come to that). I want to be sure I'm not coming across like some extreme "commie blogger" here, so perhaps I should stipulate a few quick things, for the record:

  1. My personal jury is definitely still out on this one – I welcome the spirit, energy, and zeal of the various SMNR initiatives, but I'm hesitant about the results so far;
  2. I make my living as a PR guy. I've written and sent out a ton of news releases in my time. In the majority of cases, I'd still counsel clients to issue a news release. Heck - I even did precisely that today. I'll continue to do so, where it serves the right purpose. Does this make me a hypocrite?
  3. Like Jeneane, however, I'm a passionate supporter of the fact that "the most social press release is a phone call from someone I respect".

And therein lies the heart of the matter.

What's needed is not necessarily a prettified and RSS-enabled SMNR - that's just slapping a 2.0 coat of paint on the busted up old mechanism.

What we really ought to do is start thinking rather more clearly about the way in which people seek out information and news here-and-now in the early days of this shiny new millennium. I believe there is value in the idea of an SMNR, but not necessarily as a straight format replacement for the old way of doing things. The issue is more complex than that.

One of the things we should remember, while we're blowing apart the whole generic notion of traditional news releases is that, right or wrong, this method has become an integral part of the journalistic process. So now I'm in danger of swinging to the other end of the small-p political spectrum and sounding like a stuffy reactionary, but: as PR people, our creative enthusiasm to change the method of delivery is not necessarily going to influence the media's preferred methods of receipt.

There's certainly growing demand from agencies and clients for some new ways to do things, but I've yet to see really compelling evidence of journalists asking for this stuff. I know of individual reporters who are interested in having media-rich information available to them, which the PR team is always happy to supply, of course – but that's something we only find out through day-to-day media relations; through the truly social act of having conversations with the reporters we depend upon in our symbiotic dance.

As crummy and dull as ASCII text in 10-point Courier is, I still know a lot of journalists who find a lot to like in the format (or lack thereof). They like the "no bells and whistles" approach; otherwise they feel they're being subjected to glitzy influence and bandwidth-hogging branded content. Believe it or not, I also know of a handful of journalists who still refuse to accept email attachments or HTML-encoded messages. They like to get their news fed through their editorial systems.

And there's the social media rub. Newsroom editorial systems are the lowest common denominator in this business, and they're the thing that guides the way we still distribute information over the wire.

ASCII text and the old ANPA 1312 standards – with their inherent unloveliness, line length limits, complete ignorance of hyperlinks, and archaic formatting rules established in a 1200 baud world – those are the base level requirements that still determine how news releases get pushed out onto the desktops, Bloomberg boxes, and Reuters terminals of the world. For online viewers, we can gussy up our news releases as much as we like, but to reach the mainstream media, the wire's still the thing.

Indeed, what Marketwire has announced is actually nothing to do with a wire service at all, in the strictest definition of "wire". A simple fact that seems to be missed by many is that there isn't an editorial system or other wire terminal anywhere in the world that can actually handle the rich formatting, embedded media, and funkalicious web 2.0 grooviness of an SMNR. The news wire distribution networks – even the upgraded digital ones – just don't work that way.

Let's be clear about what we're looking at: Marketwire's new product has nothing to do with a better wire service – it's all about providing better Web presence for your news.

That in itself is a very, very good thing to want to do, and in some ways I think they may be on to something here. The intentions are good, and they're certainly driving hard to bring something interesting to market ahead of others – but I'm very far from sold yet. More on that in my next post.

So, where does this leave me? I know this has been a bit like watching sausage being made, but I think I've got managed to navigate my own convoluted internal pathways through to arrive at pretty much the point Brian Solis already gave us right at the top of this stupidly long post. (Yay! A non-epiphany epiphany).

When we're talking about Social Media News Releases, we have to stop all this lip-flapping about them displacing or replacing the traditional release. That's not happening any time soon.

As blogs are to traditional media, so SMNRs are to regular news releases.

It's a complementary relationship, and one which prompts evolution on both sides. As I've said so often about social media thingies of this ilk, the correct framing is to look at SMNRs in terms of AND or, in some cases, OR logic.

Whether they end up NOTing the whole world of wires and old-skool releases is an open question, but one which would require a seismic change in the way newsroom editorial systems function in order to come true.